As you may have heard, a couple of weeks ago my current hometown (settled in 1660; current population 22,207 according to their official website) voted in the annual Town Meeting (a peculiarly New England tradition) to "decriminalize a 1968 bylaw that made public profanity illegal." Following the vote, anyone using profanity in a public place would be subject to a $20 fine. The vote was 183 for to 50 against.
The town has a voting population of something like 14,000. 233 voted at the Town Meeting. This is typical, but that's another story. The ordinance passed by better than three to one.
According to Tuesday's article in The Boston Globe, enforcement of this ordinance is on hold until the state Attorney General determines whether it is constitutional. That didn't stop some 100 people (from as far away as New Mexico) from gathering in a torrential downpour on Monday to hold a "swear-in"—to defend the right to spew verbal sewage in public.
This process has been fascinating to follow. The day following the original vote I received emails from a number of friends scattered across the country saying they had heard about it. I even found one article in an online Irish newsletter. Clearly this is a hot-button issue.
The arguments against the ordinance seem to fall into two related categories. One is the right to free speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, no matter who it might offend. The other is hostility toward what one protester called "pathological bullying" by government.
Off the record, the ordinance was directed toward the local teenagers who gather on street corners in our small town (one stoplight) after dark, and enthusiastically exercise their right to free speech, which aggravates those good citizens who believe in their right to walk through town without being assailed by profanity. On the other hand, the protesters (funny—quite a few came from out of town, and even out of state) come off sounding a bit childish. "Nyah, nyah, you can't make me shut up!"
How interesting to find a constitutional conflict taking place in my back yard. I confess that I did not attend the meeting, although I have in the past. I'm not sure how (or even if) I would have voted, because I can see both sides of the issue—as well as the potential for abuse by supporters of both sides. For the moment the kids in town will no doubt revel in their constitutional rights to foul speech. But the same ordinance would give anyone the right to complain if a neighbor's roofer slams his thumb with a hammer and utters a few colorful words. Where do you draw the line?
I write cozy mysteries, which by definition are largely free from profanity. That's what the readers want, and that is our pledge to them when we market the book in that niche. Yet I am often faced with writing scenarios when an armed killer is threatening my characters with mutilation or death—is it believable to have them say, "gosh darn it, don't kill me"? Our society designates certain words as extreme and harsh, but there's a reason for that. We need to signal extreme emotions—fear, hate, anger—and better that we use words that go straight to physical violence.
Profanity, used correctly, conveys a message and sends up a warning flag. Or at least, it should. When it's overused, it loses its effectiveness.
Which does not mean I condone a bunch of teenage guys trying to outdo each other with the frequency of use of the F-word, where small children and grandmothers can't avoid hearing them.
How would you vote? Yea or nay on public profanity?